Sustainability has been a well-established buzz word for decades now, but it seems to have lost a lot of its punch lately, watered down and co-opted by the building industry. Although it’s still a worthy goal, a growing number of practitioners are re-thinking the role and impact of design in an increasingly interconnected world.
Helen Kessler, FAIA, has been on the forefront of these discussions and continues to lead the way as we design and plan our cities and communities for the future.
With over 35 years’ experience in sustainable design and energy efficiency, Helen is passionate about connecting the dots, recognizing complex systems such that stakeholders can identify solutions that work for all. She specializes in the use of an integrative design approach and has had a leading role on over 80 diverse LEED projects.
Helen is a former Board member of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Illinois Chapter and co-directed its education programs for over 10 years. As chair of Chicago’s Energy Code Committee, she led the effort to create Chicago’s first energy code. As a voting member on the ASHRAE Guideline 0 committee she helped create national guidelines used for building commissioning.
A frequent speaker and author on sustainability topics, Helen regularly teaches various courses, including “Systems Thinking for Sustainable Design” and “Sustainability in Construction” at Northwestern University. She has received numerous awards, including the USGBC Illinois Chapter Natural Leaders “Intent to Matter” award as well as its Chapter Leader award, AIA Illinois’ R. Buckminster Fuller Award for Social Good, the inaugural Illinois Real Estate Journal Women in Real Estate “Impact award” and Alumnus of the Year, The University of Arizona Honors College. She is a member of the inaugural class of LEED Fellows.
In the latest episode of the Architects Possibility Podcast we engage in a lively conversation about the principles of regeneration, regenerative design, and the powerful paradigm shift that is required in the profession and society in order to forge a more positive future.
Some resources mentioned in this episode:
- The University of Arizona Environmental Research Laboratory
- The Hunger Project
- Carol Sanford
- “Regenerative Development and Design” by Ben Haggard and Pamela Mang
Welcome to the Architects Possibility Podcast with David Bradley of Blueprint For Living Coaching. Each week we connect with design professionals, just like you, who are using their creativity, leadership, and passion to make the world a better place in ways both big and small, every day. Now, here’s the host of the Architect’s Possibility Podcast, architect and executive coach, David Bradley.
Hey everyone. I am here today with Helen Kessler, an architect in Chicago. Helen is president of HJ Kessler Associates, a sustainable design and consulting services firm she founded in 2003, and she’s also the principal with Upfront Regenerative Design. Helen has over 35 years of experience in sustainable design and energy efficiency. She led the effort to create Chicago’s first energy code and she helped create national guidelines for use for building commissioning. Helen teaches courses on systems thinking and sustainability at Northwestern University, and she’s received numerous awards and recognition for her treatments. Helen, welcome to the podcast!
Thanks David. It’s great to be here.
I’m so happy to have you here and to continue our conversations from past times that we’ve spoken. For our audience, I know that sustainability has been one of your big focuses in your career. So maybe you could share with us how you got into sustainability in the first place.
Well, I got into sustainability – we didn’t call it sustainability – I first got into it back when I was in architecture school. And my first introduction was actually, I was at the university of Arizona. My father is a physics professor at University of Arizona and his colleague, the vice president of research, had started an organization called the Environmental Research Lab at the university. And one day he said to my father, would you like to take a tour of the Environmental Research Lab and take…bring Helen along? And so I went and I was hooked. So the lab was doing work in integrated systems, looking at…They had a cogeneration plant that was run by a diesel engine. They use the co-gen plant to provide…make electricity for the lab. They use the waste heat for heating greenhouses. They use the waste carbon dioxide to help the plants go in the greenhouses. They were also doing work with water distillation, solar water distillation. And in fact, they were doing work with passive solar heating and cooling as well.
So, eventually, eventually they were doing a lot of other things. Growing other kinds of shrimp, many different vegetables, and so forth. But in any case, I decided then and there that this was a place I’d like to work. And then I was – so I was still a third year architecture student – I then went to England. I took a solar class from an Israeli. And when I came back to the university of Arizona for my fifth year in architecture school there was a guy named Larry Medlin who had become a professor. And his very first design studio was a solar house. So I took that design studio and along with a bunch of other fellow students, we all designed solar homes.
And eventually, and through that I actually really met the folks from the Environmental Research Lab and eventually got a job there. So I worked in that area as well as historic preservation. So I consider historic preservation also a strong part of sustainability. And I have to say it was accidental in a way. I don’t know how that all happened, but there it was. And so at the Environmental Research Lab I was working with people who were at the forefront of passive solar heating and cooling. This was, to age myself, in the 1970s. So we were interacting with all those folks like, even Ed Mazria and others who were doing work in passive solar in New Mexico in particular. And then I go to all the passive solar conferences and speak at those conferences. So I was really involved in a very big way in the seventies and eighties. And actually one of the things I did back in the early 1980s, I wrote a column for the Tucson Arizona – it’s called the Arizona Daily Star, on passive solar and energy efficiency.
Wow. So with all of that background, you know, green design, sustainable design, the industry has gone through a lot of changes. And I know that what you’re currently pursuing is regenerative design or regenerative development, I believe – regeneration. It’s a term that I have found a lot of architects don’t understand, or oftentimes don’t even know exists. What can you tell our listeners about the difference or the trajectory from sustainable design to regenerative design? How are they different? What does it actually involve?
Well, so over the years – so the current definition of sustainability was, I’d say, started in the early 1990s, the Rio convention, designing for today, such that future generations have what we have…the old Iroquois seventh generation idea. And in fact, regeneration, you could say, could be part of that, too. Okay. So regeneration isn’t going to happen. I mean, the two were linked, but what has happened over the years… So in the 1990s that was when LEED was created, the green…US Green Building Council leadership and energy and environmental design. And I have to tell you, being somebody who was at that forefront in the seventies and eighties – and I, by the way, took a little detour. I went and got an MBA, worked in real estate development for a while, worked in hotel development for awhile – And then, so, what we were looking at for sustainability back in the early nineties probably, you know, it was important to be looking at defining what are we talking about?
How do we know what that is? And that’s where LEED comes in and LEED was also a market transformation tool. So it – and it did that, it transformed the way people think about sustainability and green building and energy efficiency. I mean, back in the early eighties, I’d go to these solar conferences and there were 2,500 people and we thought it was a lot of people. And then all of a sudden, you know, fast forward to Greenbuild and in…I can’t remember the year of the first Greenbuild, but it was in the early 1990s, no, early two thousands. Yeah, you know, it also started with that number, but it eventually ballooned to over 20,000 people coming to these Greenbuild conventions. And so in that whole process, people started using the word sustainability in a way that it kind of lost its meaning. So I’m designing a sustainable building. Well, what the heck is a sustainable building? How is the building sustainable? You know, is it because it has photovoltaics, does it…because it’s energy efficient. But to be really sustainable, what would that mean? How would you actually make that building truly sustainable?
The classic definition of sustainability, as I understand it is that the design provides for current needs without bankrupting needs of future generations, something along those lines,
Right? So in design you build a building, you’re digging the resources out of the earth or whatever. You’re making the steel, you’re making the concrete, you’re making a little bit, you know, using all these chemicals to make this building. And how is that actually ultimately sustainable? So, yeah, it might be more energy efficient. It might be less harmful. It is probably going to do something good. But is it actually making better or is it just…
It still has an impact.
Yeah. So that’s the issue too, that we have this…with this word sustainable. It’s not that it’s bad, a bad word. It’s actually a great word. And the whole idea behind it, like what you were talking about about the kind of a classical definition would have you go do, you know, what a great thing to be thinking about that is, you know, those are the things we should be.
What’s happened is that that has changed in a sense and the way it’s changed is it…we forget the background and we’re only looking at, you know, we’re looking at through like the lens of LEED or the lens of green Globes or the lens of energy efficiency, or…and again, none of that is bad. It’s just not sufficient to have a world that is sustainable. To have a world that it will…you know, because we’re continuing to use resources. I’m trying to remember who said this, but, you know, that’s the idea of I’m…I need to go to Mexico and I got on the road and instead of driving to Mexico, I’m driving north to Canada. And no matter how slowly I go to Canada, I’ll never get to Mexico. Right?
You know, so we just need to look at this big context. So now we’re looking at it, we’re looking at the idea of regeneration, how do we regenerate communities and ecosystems? And if we continue to do the same thing we did with the word sustainability and say, our building is regenerative, what the heck does that mean? How are you making sure that that building is going to regenerate our communities and ecosystem?
It’s really a…it’s a label that loses its meaning. And it doesn’t really tie to what you’re trying to achieve, from what I’m hearing.
That’s right. And so the word sustainability has lost its meaning. And I worry that the word regeneration will lose its meaning. Already has. I mean, we’re already seeing people teaching, including me, but the way we’re trying to teach it is to actually have people look at it as a new paradigm. It’s not about a building, a building cannot just like…it can’t be sustainable. It can’t be regenerative.
It’s a new context rather than a quality. Like you said, like a…It’s a way of thinking and a way…and a lens through which we can design and see the world and all of the interrelations. But it’s, as you said, a building can’t be regenerative by nature. Okay. Okay.
So how do you get to a more…how do you then get to that place where you could say that you’re moving towards regeneration? You’re…so first of all, actually changing people’s mindset, you know, on how you think about things and then actually starting to look at, well, what do we mean by this? You know, how are we going to actually make sure that this place is regenerative? And so just think about, well, who needs to be involved in that? So clearly the people who are going to be in the building need to be involved. How often do you have people who are in a building involved in the design of the building? I’ll tell you, I mean, sometimes they are ,right. I’ve designed or done a hell of a lot of schools. I mean, I don’t see any kids involved in most of those schools.
I don’t see teachers involved in most of those schools.
So the end occupant is the one who should be one of the main players.
Not just them. That’s only one piece. Okay. Those are users., Then there’s also those people who are maintaining it, then there’s also the community. And it’s really important to have the community involved, too. You know, how is the community going to be supporting that school as an example? And then how are you going to…where’s the money coming from? Where…how is that going to interact with the environment? What is it going to do to impact the environment in a good way or a bad way? You know, so you want to bring in all of the stakeholders that are involved in actually creating this place. And in fact, the place to start is with the place, you know. What is it about a place that makes it special? So if you…I’m just thinking about the places I’ve been, right, in places you’ve been David, too. You know, we’ve…we, you and I have been fortunate to see amazing places in Europe, for instance, that are all different.
I’ve been all over the world and Africa and so forth, and they’re all…they have their unique place. In the United States you could be in the suburbs of Chicago, you could go to the suburbs of California and other than the Palm trees versus the Oak trees…Well, they have Oaks in California, too…You might not know where you are. And in fact, in many places where we have these strip malls, there aren’t even any trees. So, you know, it makes it easier to imagine you’re…so, the problem is that we don’t really design for a place, you know, a really specific place. We need to be looking at that. And we need to be including all the stakeholders. Although when I say stakeholders, I, you know, maybe that’s not a great word because some different people may look at it like as a traditional…
Financial stakeholders, yeah. But look at who represents all of the different aspects, we can call that… This is a terminology that is used by the folks at Regenesis and I think Carol Sanford as well…genuine wealth…the idea of how all these different ideas of who represents produced capital, who represents the human capital, the social capital, the environmental natural capital, and the financial capital who…who represents all of that. Bring them all together to actually work together to create genuine wealth rather than GDP wealth. Right? And so how do you then change the way that you would design a place based on that?
So it’s a challenge because people are…the way that we design communities, the way we design buildings, you know, there’s a client and they say, well, we want this building and you go, okay, I’m an architect. I’ve got to design a building. Right? And then if you say, well, I want to expand this idea to something bigger and more holistic – let’s use that word holistic – and looking at integration of systems and looking how to…everything. And when I talk about integration of systems, I’m talking about integration of systems within a building, that’s really important, but also how the building is integrated into that community and, and how the weather and the watershed in particular, like the natural features and everything. How does that all impact that building and how then do the people in all those places impact the building? And in fact, looking at the development then of the people who were involved, like, you know, once a building is up, if it’s static, which most buildings are, it’s not going to develop anymore. And then how can that be regenerative or how can that be sustainable? The only place for it to go is like that, right? Downhill.
So we want to be looking at how can we kind of increase the potential, how can we increase the, um, well, I use the word regenerate, how can we regenerate this on an ongoing basis?
Do you think it’s possible actually to shift building paradigms so that buildings, instead of going down over time, actually do evolve and transform themselves over time, in reaction with their surroundings, with the users and the environment and everything else, or is it…are we really kind of stuck with the static building and we have to make adjustments external to it?
Well, I think that’s a great question and I actually think it’s possible to do what you’re asking. But it will take a shift in mindset. It will take a shift in the way we think about how we interact with buildings and it’ll take, …I mean…I think about myself. I mean, I don’t interact as much as I could, but then I think about some friends of mine who, you know, get involved in the boards of their buildings, for instance, and then create community gardens and things like that, you know? So, um, it’s going to take new ways of thinking. It’s going to take us becoming maybe more responsible for our environment. I think…I don’t know. I mean, we have to….we…it’s going to be an experiment. We have to be experimenting with it. But we also have to do it because we’ve got other…got these big issues coming at us.
We’ve got climate change, we’ve got pandemics, we’ve got hurricanes and floods and all this. And I think that by taking a regenerative approach and looking at, we can then actually, you know…people talk about resilience and that’s important, but we can actually look at all of those things coming at us from…if we look at it from a holistic point of view and look at how we live in a nested system of our building, within a community, within a watershed within whatever bigger area…we can start looking at, well, how should we be designing this building? How should we be interacting with this building to actually work with these things that are coming at us? And so that we’re interacting, you know, in a way that every…that that makes it better, not worse.
I have to…so I have a question that popped into my head because it sounds like first of all, one of the things that popped in my head was, Oh my gosh, this sounds absolutely daunting because you have to have a handle on all of the intricacies and the interrelationships. And what popped in my head was this thought that we actually have to regenerate the profession of architecture in such a way….and in such a way that architects are called upon to think completely differently and to take a very, very different role in design and development and the building process and all of it, like…what is the role of the architect as the conductor of this orchestra that you’ve described?
Great. That’s a really great question. And again, it goes back to this whole idea of shift in mindset, and it’s not just of the architect. It’s going to be the whole design and construction community and the owners and everybody, because, you know, we’ve been set in our ways for a long time and the set in our ways is based on technology, you know. It’s…and we are just getting to more technology, you know: building information, modeling, you know, maybe doing panelized buildings, maybe, you know, manufacturing, different ways of looking at how you build just in time, you know – all these kind of buzzwords. But what I’m telling you is about a people-centered approach and a living system centered approach.
Not, you know…and actually thinking of ourselves, we are part of nature. Right?
We, I mean…you know, some people would say, and I would say we are nature, you know, right? When we think of ourselves as over, above, you know, that we’re humans, you know, our existing apart from…existing from…and being able to like…you know, puppeteers, managing it all Well, and then I, you know, there’s big wind storm comes through and, you know full well that you’re not the one managing it your way.
So we have to start looking at our kind of our vulnerabilities, too. And I think this pandemic actually is really, really, really fascinating because it changed everything in an instant. I mean, how fast did it take to shut down societies all over the world, right? And how fast did it take actually to reduce pollution all over the world and okay, well, what can we learn from that? You know, what can we…what are the good things that we can take? You know, like, we have technologies now, like the internet, like you and I are on Zoom right now – amazing platform. Right? So we’ve got these technologies that we can use at the same time. We…what can we learn from what’s been happening? What is continuing to happen that will make our societies more healthy?
If you think about it, the pandemic is…has been a catalyst for regeneration on multiple, multiple levels in our society.
I’m sorry, David, I’m going to ask you a question. What do you mean by that?
Well, I think if you think about how systems interact with each other and a virus is as much nature as a hurricane or a flood or the human condition. Right? And so there was this element that’s popped up that we have absolutely well, very little experience with. And I think it’s appearance sort of acted as a catalyst to force us to rethink so many things like you were saying that the virus itself actually became where…we’re having to learn to live with the virus. We’re having to adjust the ways we live, the ways we interact with each other, the ways we communicate, even the ways we design. I’ve spoken with people doing food service design and hospitals, and just social spaces, public spaces. So I guess that’s maybe what I was thinking. It’s like the virus showed up and as deadly and awful as it is, it also has caused a regeneration on multiple levels of our system.
See, that’s where I’m going to push back a little bit on that regeneration in that. So, I would definitely agree with you that it’s rethinking.
But I wouldn’t call it regeneration. Cause, well, first of all, it’s been mostly reactive.
If we’re really thinking about designing in a regenerative way, we’re not being reactive. We are actually taking all of these, the study of place and the understanding holistic systems and understanding, you know, what the potential is of a place, what the essence is of a place, how are we taking these ideas and transforming this place into something that is more…that works better for everybody. And then how do we develop ourselves to continue that and make that continue? Keep going.
It’s a great point too, because I think what you’re pointing to is there’s a symbiosis and a partnership that happens in regeneration. Maybe that is not the reactive side. It’s more of the…I don’t know what the best word would be?
Definitely. Yeah. I mean, it’s, there’s an integration and integration system, so, and yeah, and you know, we’d always be looking at how things work together and looking at the interactions. So, you know, if you’re just designing an office space so that somebody can be in that space to deal with, you know, to kind of reduce the impact of coronavirus, but you’re not changing the HVC system, you’re not doing enough. You need to understand how all the different systems are working and how this disease spreads. And you need to be also, I mean, this is kind of unfortunate, but you actually almost need to understand why we’re almost not ready yet. We’re still experimenting with this. And of course, then the next disease might not be airborne, might be something else. So, what kind of systems could we develop that would have us be able to deal with any of it and all of it? So I think we need to just be very careful about using that word regeneration, because it really is…It’s…The word relates to development, being developmental and continuing to develop, understanding the essence of a place of a thing, or, you know, whatever, and seeing, you know, not…and the other thing is not actually looking at solving problems, but looking at what’s the potential here? How does…how do all these integrated systems interact and how do they work together?
Well, I hope I haven’t fallen down the slippery slope of putting regeneration in the same category as sustainability. Right? Like trying to make the word not mean what it’s supposed to mean. Um,
That’s good. I mean, that’s why one has to have conversations.
Oh, absolutely. Now, and this is the…I still…you know, I told someone recently I said, I feel like a newbie when it comes to regenerative design as a concept. And it’s something that has fascinated me for years. And the response back was, we’re all newbies at this. Like, this is something that just by its nature, it’s a continuing dialectic and try it…We’re all just kind of learning as we go.
I have to say that some of, some of the best examples to me of regeneration are, I’m a supporter/investor in an organization called the Hunger Project. The Hunger Project does work in a little bit of Latin…In a number of countries in Latin America, a bunch of countries in Africa and some countries, India and Bangladesh, and in Africa. I think about that…I’ve actually visited one of their projects. They work with local communities. So they bring together a whole bunch of rural communities to create what they call an epicenter. Like in that space, it’s based on governance, it’s based on what they want to…what these…this group is going to create for the people who live there.
And what’s so cool about it is that they, these people, are coming from complete denial. That…denial isn’t necessarily the right word. Despair, you know, like they’re not…they’re poor, right? They’re really, really destitute. They come together and they start seeing potential through this process that the Hunger Project uses. And then they eventually actually create schools and healthcare, and they have developed systems where they become much more resilient and can deal with things like the pandemics and the floods and all that. So, it’s actually kind of a cool example of regeneration to me. And they have to constantly, constantly be developing themselves. Otherwise, if they just stop, they’re going to slide back to where they were.
Well, and that’s the principle of regeneration at its core is the evolution, the coevolution of different systems with each other, ongoing. Helen. I can talk to you about this for hours. I so appreciate you joining me for this conversation and sharing a little bit with all of us about your expertise, starting this conversation about regeneration. I think it’s a brilliant concept, and hopefully it’s going to take on a little more significance. Two questions before we go. One is what needs to happen… And these are big questions. I probably should….We should have another whole session. What needs to happen to change that mindset is, does, is it a change in our educational system? Is it a change structurally in our industry? That’s one question, and then what’s the best place for people to learn more?
Okay. So, in terms of the education system, I mean, I think we need to be changing what we teach in school, and we can start with teaching…having students learn about systems and understanding systems thinking and understanding somehow… I mean, having…teaching…to teach a new mindset is not the easiest thing in the world.
I have to say that my partner in Upfront Regenerative Design and my partner in teaching systems thinking for sustainable design at Northwestern University – we’ve actually had a few success stories and having people change the way they look at things. We work with some mentors. One of them is Carol Sanford. The Carol Sanford Institute. We’re part of a group called the Change Agent Development Group. Anybody’s invited to join that. So, you know, David, I can give you some links to that, which we can put on your website.
And then the other organization that I’ve worked with – and worked with Bill Reed, who we’ve mentioned – is Regenesis, which is based in Santa Fe. And Regenesis actually wrote a book, which I think is really…Which we use as our textbook for our class. It’s called Regenerative Development And Design, and it has a lot of great examples. But I think that it’s…it, you know, getting back to your basic question is this mindset, shifting our mindset. It’s not easy. So, we’re actually looking at a different kind of paradigm. I mean, we’ve been living in a different paradigm, different paradigms, you know, we live for the most part in kind of a mechanistic paradigm and maybe a human development paradigm. But this is like, you know, where do we…where are we going with this regenerative paradigm? And actually…so I think we need to be…to get the word out. So I appreciate, you know, having this opportunity to talk to you and hopefully get the word out. And I’m always looking for partners in doing that, you know, like, especially, you know…as you know, I’m here in Chicago…we’re looking for partners in Chicago and we’re looking for people who are also enthusiastic about the potential of regenerative development.
Wonderful. I will definitely put those links on my website as part of this. Helen, thank you so much for being here. I really acknowledge you for your passion and the fun. If anybody ever wants to have fun when they’re traveling, they should travel with Helen Kessler. We spent time together in Brussels last year and just had a ball. And that’s where this conversation started. I really appreciate you continuing to have it and to be out there in the world, making it a better place. Thank you so much.
Oh, you’re welcome, David. It was a real pleasure. Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.
Thanks for joining us this week on the Architects Possibility Podcast with architect and executive coach, David Bradley, produced by Blueprint For Living Coaching. If you found value in the show, be sure to give us a rating on iTunes and share it with an architect you know. Remember to tune in next week for our next episode of the Architects Possibility Podcast. Until then, keep celebrating the possibility in your life and make it a wonder-filled day!